Sebelius ‘stunned’ by energy bill process

Coal-plant legislation approved; governor accuses lawmaker of veto override 'auction'

How our senators voted

Lawrence’s two senators remained split on the energy issue.

State Sen. Marci Francisco, a Democrat, voted against the bill, while state Sen. Roger Pine, a Republican, voted for it.

“I am not convinced that the changes could in any way balance the impact that the construction of an uncertain number of new coal plants would have on our environment,” Francisco said.

Pine, however, said he thought the bill represented a good compromise.

“It appears to have additional areas where they made it more environmentally friendly,” Pine said.

But Pine said he thinks the Legislature will continue working on the issue.

“I’m sure that the negotiating and the political end of this is not done,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, whose district includes a portion of Douglas County, also voted against the bill.

He said he “strongly opposed” the part of the measure that weakened the authority of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in the process of considering plant permits.

“This bill is industry-driven and falls far short of a comprehensive energy policy,” he said.

? Legislators upset by a state regulator’s decision to block the construction of two coal-fired power plants in Kansas passed a bill Thursday to overturn his decision and reduce his power.

But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is expected to veto the bill, and she accused a legislative leader of starting an “auction” in hopes of picking up enough votes to override a veto.

The Senate passed the bill, 31-7, a day after the House approved it.

It’s a response to the denial in October of an air-quality permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and two out-of-state partners by Sebelius’ secretary of health and environment.

The companies want to build the two plants in southwest Kansas, outside Holcomb, a town of 1,900 best known previously for being the site of the murder of four family members that inspired Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

The bill allows Sunflower and its partners to reapply for the permit, under rules requiring the secretary to approve it, allowing the $3.6 billion project to go forward. It also limits his power to deny future air-quality permits and to impose new limits on pollution and greenhouse gases, such as CO2, linked to global warming.

Many legislators argue restrictions on the secretary’s power will restore consistency and fairness in how the state regulates potential air hazards. Sebelius contends they’d prevent the secretary from protecting public health and the environment.

Sebelius said Thursday that she’ll examine the bill when it reaches her desk but added, “I haven’t seen much to recommend it highly to me.”

Supporters had four votes more in the Senate than the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. But in the House, where the vote was 75-47, they’re at least six votes short.

The Democratic governor said she is “stunned” by talk that supporters expect to get enough votes by making trades on other issues. House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, an Ingalls Republican and strong supporter of the bill, has said opponents will “let me know what they want” on the budget and other issues.

“He seems to be inviting a legislative auction on a very important policy decision,” Sebelius told The Associated Press. “I think their constituents would be disappointed that they would be playing ‘Let’s make a deal’ with energy policy.”

But Neufeld said the governor misinterpreted his remarks.

“This isn’t eBay,” Neufeld said. “The comment I made is in regard to the fact that people are now telling me what they want. That doesn’t mean I’m opening an auction and trading.”

The final version of the bill was drafted by three senators and three House members, who included several “green” provisions designed to attract the support of reluctant House members. The Senate had debated none of them, but they didn’t cause problems with supporters sustaining their two-thirds majority there.

Those provisions include a mandate that renewable resources, such as wind, account for 10 percent of the generating capacity by 2012 of investor-owned utilities and electric cooperatives. The figure would rise to 20 percent by 2020.

“It advances a secure energy policy for Kansas,” said Earl Watkins Jr., Sunflower’s chief executive officer. “It effectively ensures that we’ll have affordable energy in the future.”

As for Sebelius’ threatened veto, Watkins said: “I hope she reconsiders. If she doesn’t, then we’ll just have to deal with it.”

But Sierra Club spokeswoman Stephanie Cole said the bill represents a break with national trends and, “It does seems a little bit peculiar, doesn’t it?”

She noted that dozens of coal-fired plants were abandoned or delayed last year. Also, this week the federal government suspended a major loan program for plants in rural communities, saying uncertainties surrounding climate change and rising construction costs make such loans too risky.

“It brings us back to the question of, what’s the matter with Kansas?” Cole said.

Sebelius said that if she vetoes the bill, as expected, and legislators sustain her veto, she’ll continue to try to work out a compromise.

She’s proposed allowing Sunflower to build one of its plants if it commits to investing in wind farms and conservation programs. Sunflower has rejected the deal, saying it needs two plants to keep out-of-state partners who will help finance the project.

“I fully intend to go back to the table with the proposal that I made at the outset,” Sebelius said.

Neufeld has been confident that supporters will pick up the extra votes they’ll need to override a Sebelius veto. After Wednesday’s vote in the House, he said some opponents want commitments on budget issues, while others have proposals they want debated – or blocked.

On Thursday, Neufeld said, “I’ve made it very clear to everybody that I’m not trading any votes or anything on that energy issue.”

“What that means is that we’re finally hearing from people what’s important to them,” he said.

He also said Sebelius is promising legislators they won’t have opponents in this year’s elections if they vote with her, but he didn’t list examples.

“That’s a different issue,” Neufeld said. “She can trade that if she wants to.”

But Sebelius said: “I have had conversations with legislators about this issue all throughout the session and have never, at any point in any conversation, talked about anything but the energy policy we’re making.”